'There's No Substitute for Experience': Cary Morin Talks Dockside Saints

Cary Morin was invited to Dockside Studios in Louisiana to record an album, only he didn't have an album yet. With the prospect of a number of excellent guest musicians to accompany him, Morin spent a year doing the pre-production on Dockside Saints, writing new songs inspired by the Mississippi valley context of Louisiana and also selectively picking songs which he knew would benefit from a treatment with several skilled musicians. The album will be released on August 7th and is currently being funded if you'd like to get involved. 

As someone who has been primarily a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist for some time, working with a group of new friends was very rewarding for Morin and resulted in a beautifully textured album with a wide range of musical influences, which is typical of Morin's work. You'll find the Blues, Country Western, Rock, and more intertwined in subtle ways on Morin's previous solo albums and also on Dockside Saints.

Cary Morin kindly talked to Tower's PULSE! about learning to record albums in a minimalist way, what pushed him to become a singer/songwriter after time touring as a guitarist, why he'll never write a musical again, and a variety of other interesting topics. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on your new album coming up. I can tell from descriptions that it’s taken a lot of planning and has been in the works for a couple of years, if not longer. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about? I know that you had an opportunity to record at Dockside, and then you went away and wrote it. Most people do that the other way around.

Cary Morin: It was really all about logistics. We had to get on their calendar. We had to arrange for all of the great players. That took a while. I came home, in the meantime, and did pre-production on everything, and that took about a year. It was a process. I would do it again. I think the more people who get involved, the longer it takes. Normally I just do solo albums, and it’s just me and Celeste, really. For me to do a solo project would take about half the time.

HMS: Right. So this was a little bit like a big, complicated party, with all of these people and moving parts?

CM: Totally worth it, though. It was fun being there, and I met just about everybody for the first time on this project. They are all great folks and I’m sure we’ll be friends forever now.

HMS: That’s wonderful. What kind of mindset were you in for this specific location and the possibility of having a number of musicians involved? When you’re writing for these circumstances, does that change how you write music?

CM: Yes, definitely. I have to try and think of approaching songs with a band in mind, instead of just me and a guitar. That has an influence on how I write the lyrics. One thing that really influenced a number of these songs was thinking about New Orleans, and thinking about Louisiana. I did some research on some Mound communities that lived out there, and all the Native people who lived around the South around 1500. Their use of the Mississippi Valley was pretty inspirational since I do the same thing. Though I use a different vehicle, I spend a lot of time rolling around that river valley.

I was also in Italy for a little while, and the European architecture really inspired me. We were in this old town called Monopoli. Looking at the architecture kind of reminded me of New Orleans, and something about the atmosphere. That helped with coming up with some of the concepts for the songs. Some of the songs were already written, actually, and I pulled them from previous recordings since I thought they’d be really appropriate with a band. There was a little bit of everything.

HMS: That’s really interesting about Italy, because like New Orleans, Italy is coastal and there are trade routes and there’s lots of coming of coming and going there, too, with lots of cultural mixes and the flowering of ideas.

CM: Yes, and that’s just how it worked out. I had a tour booked and we had some friends in Italy who helped us out with ten shows. His parents were in the process of selling a condo right downtown in a little community, so he just let us stay there for a week and a half. We’d go out and do shows at night and then we’d be home at 2AM or so. Then we’d get up and walk around town. It was a really relaxing work trip.

HMS: That must have been nice not to just be staying in a standard hotel, but more of a home.

CM: Yes, it was really generous of them. I was really appreciative of their effort and I got a couple of songs out of it too.

HMS: I want to come back to what you were saying about the Mound Builders. I grew up when I was young in Memphis, Tennessee, and I think I went to some of these mounds, though I don’t remember a whole lot of detail. Was this one culture, or different cultures who built them?

CM: There were different cultures. You were probably out on the Natchez Trace.

HMS: That sounds familiar.

CM: That’s a road that stretches between Alabama and Tennessee and there’s a lot of interesting even recent history along that road. A lot of the cultures were kind of specialized in different things, whether building things or different wares. And they would walk around out there and trade between the different communities. One of the larger places was in St. Louis. At the time, we have no idea what it was called, but it’s since been called Cahokia. That would be more of a metropolitan area where you’d go and see people from all over the place and hear a lot of different languages. It’s all really interesting.

[Chickie Wah Wah April 2019 w/Grayson Capps & Corky Hughes]

HMS: It’s very easy to forget that there’s an immense amount of history that’s gone on in some of these areas, but music tends to be something that remembers, and connects with landscapes and regions.

CM: Definitely. That kind of thing is irresistible to me. We travel around the US a lot, and a little in Europe too, and especially in the West, I have a hard time not imagining what it used to be like. Like where I’m standing right now, I’m looking at telephone poles, asphalt, but what was it like before all that? What was the native grass, with no invasive species of plant? It had to be really, really, different.

HMS: Almost like an alien world in the same location.

CM: Yes, definitely.

HMS: How has touring in the US or other countries changed the way that you see the world or society? Has that influenced your perspective or your music?

CM: It has in some ways. When I first started doing trips over there, I was the guitar player for an acoustic Blues trio. Up to then, my experience on stages in the US had been limited to festivals and clubs, and I played guitar mostly in a dance band. After I got this job with this other band and spent a lot of time in Europe, I got all these ideas from watching the band leader and it changed the way that I approached things. I just wanted to be the band leader.

I was really inspired, so I had to change the way that I did things. I had to become more confident on stage and more proficient on the guitar. So that whole process changed what I do.

HMS: I was actually going to ask you about that transition, about when in your life you decided you wanted to do solo stuff, and be a singer as well as a guitar player. How far back does guitar go for you? Was that your first instrument?

CM: No, actually it wasn’t. My first instrument was the piano. I was fortunate because my mother had this deal with a woman who lived down the street that she would do laundry for her in trade for piano lessons for me. This was when I was in kindergarten or first grade. At the time, I wasn’t over-appreciative of the idea, but as it turns out, it was really invaluable. When I was 14 or so, I started picking up guitars that were around the house, and it was really easy for me to figure out how to work them.

HMS: Piano is hard, man.

CM: It is!

HMS: I am also a failed piano player. As a child, I also did not appreciate the lessons I was made to take.

CM: Yes, I was a really terrible student, too, and that didn’t help. One of the things that was a byproduct of those early days was that the piano teacher who my mom made the deal with really wasn’t much of a teacher. She would play things for me in typical, once a week lessons. I was supposed to have learned all this stuff, but maybe I hadn’t learned it as well as I should have, and she would play things for me. And watching her play, it made more sense to me. I started playing by ear because of that. It’s a bad thing to do for young students, but for me, it was great. Because that’s how I put things together now.

HMS: That was something that you could take with you.

CM: A “happy accident”, I think they call it.

[The Frog Pond April 2019 w/Will Kimbrough]

HMS: When you say that there were guitars around the house, is that because you had other relatives who played?

CM: Yes. My oldest brother took guitar lessons for two or three years, and my dad was self-taught and he really enjoyed playing old Country tunes. When people came over, he’d pull out a guitar and sing Hank Williams tunes, classic Country stuff. I grew up knowing that stuff pretty well because of that, and it got me really interested in playing guitar.

HMS: You must have put in a pretty obsessive amount of time on the guitar to get to where you are now. What do you think made you commit so much to becoming such a good picker?

CM: Well, thanks for that. I think there’s always more to learn. I learn constantly because around the house, I play a lot. I stumble across cool things. I’ve always been interested in why things sound the way they do, whether tones or chord structure. I really couldn’t tell you why I was fascinated with that sort of thing as a child, but that’s really what drove me, to try to make things sound like what I heard on records. Including vocal harmonies.

I used to have two cassette players, and I would sing and play into one, then hit record on the other one, and sing and play with the stuff that I’d just recorded, into another one. So I was always, even as a little kid, trying to figure out how to create chord structure. I guess it’s kinda nerdy, but I was fascinated.

HMS: That’s so difficult when you can’t see what the musician is doing, too. That’s amazing. I’ve heard musicians of an older generation talk about trying to play things based on what they heard on the radio.

CM: That, and it’s a one-shot thing. You hear the song and then it’s gone, you know? There were things like that for me. I had access to the albums that were in the house. I wasn’t an avid vinyl shopper when I was 12. But some of my brother’s friends’ albums were really cool, so we had this cross-pollination going on musically with friends. I heard a lot of music for the first time by raiding my best friend’s brother’s record collection.

HMS: Yes, for sure. Someone asked me what the first CD was that I bought, and I had to really think about it, because I was like a thief. I didn’t buy stuff. I had everyone else’s music. Both my brothers were into music and played guitar, and they had friends who were a little older who were into music, too. So I would just get all that stuff, and borrow it, and maybe give it back if I was feeling nice. I was 19 years old when I bought my first music because I was so bad about taking other peoples’ music.

CM: That’s hilarious. What was the first CD, then?

HMS: It was actually one of the first Radiohead albums. Pablo Honey, I think. And it was actually at a Tower Records in New York, so that makes me laugh. I think I was trying to impress my then boyfriend, by showing I could actually choose and purchase music on a trip to New York.

[Cary wins 2017 Independent Music Award for Best Blues Album in NYC]

CM: Nice. And it had to be the perfect sound, too. I heard music from there when I was probably 15 or 16. There was a short-lived FM station in town and they’d play a lot of New York stuff. I heard The Talking Heads for the first time. I heard Peter Tosh for the first time. Boy, that was an eye-opener. But I’m inspired by the music that came out of New York City back in the day.

HMS: Even the stuff from the Folk music revival was pretty amazing, like Bob Dylan and Willie Nile and these guys.

CM: Indeed. I just had a really long conversation about Bob Dylan last night. A friend of mine who’s also a performer is from Alabama, but he’s out here visiting. We were discussing the merits of the new Bob Dylan album. He knew way more about it than I did, since I haven’t gotten around to checking it out yet. But he hadn’t really heard one of my favorite Dylan recordings, which was Infidels. That was a great conversation.

HMS: What is it about Infidels that appeals to you?

CM: The recording itself. I was really interested by the fact that Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler are playing guitar on that album. The rhythm section was Sly & Robbie. You have a really solid Reggae rhythm section cut loose on some really incredibly written Folk tunes, with Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler playing guitar. It’s unstoppable.

HMS: That’s a crazy combination! Dylan has something that I also admire in The Rolling Stones in their huge, long history, which is that they’ll put out an album that tries things they haven’t done before in terms of sound. Taking in new influences and enthusiasms for things they are still learning about. Some people might like the album, some people might not, but I approve of that idea. That you keep trying things. You keep changing.

CM: That last Stones album, that was really minimally recorded, all live—people just don’t do that anymore. I felt the same way about that album. That’s one of the things about recording, we’re always on a quest to get a certain sound, a certain feel. Things like that Stones recording really validates a bunch of players in a room with as few live mics as possible.

HMS: I totally agree with you on that. That’s like a high wire act without a net, and people just don’t do it anymore. The Stones did a thing on TV recently for a charity, and they had a song played by video, and it was four guys with very few instruments, and they managed to make it sound good. And that’s because they know how to do it with nothing.

CM: There’s no substitute for experience.

HMS: Have you ever done an EP or LP where it was just you playing, or taken from a live recording?

CM: Yes, the first three solo albums I did, starting with Streamline, then Tiny Town, then Together. The first two were definitely me sitting in front of a couple of different microphones with me singing and playing. No headphones.

HMS: Wow.

CM: We thought that was the best way to capture the emotion of the tunes.

HMS: This kind of leads into questions about types of music and genre. Blues music, particularly, has this history of trying to be as authentic as possible and capture in recordings the things that may not be perfect. Is that what you’re going for?

CM: Yeah, I would say that. I’m trying to remember why I ended up doing that. I think I made an album with a company in North Carolina called Music Maker. That’s about the time that I first started touring Europe with the Pura Fe Trio. The Music Maker expressed interest in making a record for me. I was flattered and totally agreed, and flew out to North Carolina expecting a recording session the way I had always done. It turned out it was two microphones and a hard drive recorder.

The microphones had to be placed exactly so to catch what I was doing on the guitar. I was playing with a friend of mine who I’d known for many years and he was playing a small trap kit. So that’s when I first learned about minimal micing and just one extremely simple stereo recording. [Laughs]

HMS: [Laughs]

CM: After that, you don’t edit anything. There’s no malarkey. You finish the song and it’s done. It was awesome.

HMS: That’s amazing because it was like, “Surprise, figure it out!”

[2014 Music Maker Tin Type]

CM: Yes, I wasn’t a fan right off the bat. I was like, “Wait, aren’t we going to track things?” I was just really ingrained in this method that I thought was the only way it was done. And boy was I wrong. It was really a great experience.

HMS: When you look back on that, are you glad it happened to you, since it gave you more tools in your toolset? So that you knew how to do that type of recording in the future?

CM: Well, I don’t know that I know how to do anything, but there’s always a quest to get it done as good as you possible can. But yes, that was the beginning of a style of a recording and presenting a song as real and as accurately as it gets.

HMS: Do you care what descriptive terms people use to describe the music you create? I’ve seen Blues, Jazz, Country, all these different things used to describe different aspect of your music.

CM: I think it’s great. No, I’m not really any of that. I feel like I’m a product of all the stuff that I’ve listened to and all these players that I’ve been around my whole life. It’s a specific combination of people that created the way that I listen to things and the way I hear things.

I think it’s great when people come up with genres or descriptors of what I do, because that just means that music means something different to everybody. And the same with art in general. We all see paintings differently. Our eyes all develop from all these different influences. I really appreciate the fact that people are listening to it in the first place.

HMS: I guess it’s probably good that you don’t feel too locked into any particular sound because then you have more room to try whatever occurs to you. Rather than feeling that you have to sound exactly like your last album, for instance.

CM: I think we’ve had that conversation around the house from time to time. People tend to gravitate towards one thing that I do, and if I put out an album, I want to make sure that I don’t disappoint anybody. That’s always in the back of my head. But we also strive to make each collection of songs unique and different from the last record, so there’s kind of a struggle between those two ideals.

HMS: It seems like any musician would have that tension if they are trying to make new music.

CM: Yeah, and the fact that I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. [Laughs] That kind of makes it difficult, too.

HMS: I wanted to ask you a couple questions about some of the specific songs on this album. “Chosen Road” feels a little more modern and direct in some ways, even though in terms of sound, it has some more tradition elements. Could you tell us about what that song means to you?

CM: I think that it’s great that you ask about that particular song because it was the producer’s favorite production on the entire project. There was just something about how it all came together that he was really crazy about. I like it too, but it really has a reoccurring theme that I write about. There’s a character who pops up in a lot of my songs, and that’s one written about him.

He’s a fisherman and a family guy. He lives down south. That song is basically about the struggle of being self-employed and having a mortgage and a boat, and kids. I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve written about that guy. Lots!

[Tony Daigle, Brian Brignac, Cary Morin, Lee Allen Zeno at Dockside]

HMS: Some songwriters feel compelled to tell very specific stories in their music and some totally don’t. How did this guy come into existence for you? Did he just pop into your head one day?

CM: That’s a good question. I wrote a song sort of by request. I went through a time in my life when I was really busy taking care of kids, not really playing guitar very much, and certainly not writing songs. This friend of mine called from Seattle, where she was at the time, and said, “You know, I think you ought to write some songs.” And she gave me all these pertinent reasons why I should do it and I took it to heart.

The first song that I wrote was about a guy who was fishing in Mexico. Then I just got interested in the idea of the solitary person out fishing. I wrote another song about a guy whose life is about providing for his family, and I really liked the theme. The more I thought about it, the clearer his image was. Then I could start creating songs about other aspects of his life. His youth, and how he ended up where he is.

I’ve done similar projects over the years. I try to create a story about a young kid with narcolepsy. I ended up writing a play about it. The whole idea of it was that then I’d have all these characters to write songs about.

HMS: Oh wow! Was it a musical?

CM: Yes.

HMS: I knew you had some theater connections, but I didn’t realize that you’d written musicals. That makes sense.

CM: It was a combination of different artists around town kicking around ideas. It started out as, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…?” It just grew out of all the “What ifs” It was a great experience.

HMS: So, you’d do it again?

CM: No. Definitely not.

HMS: [Laughs] Too much work?

CM: It took two years, had a cast of 50 people, and was really expensive. Dedicating two years to something like that is enough in my book.

HMS: I can see that. 

On the album, the song “Prisoner” also has a storytelling aspect, and a very Bluesy sound coming in, opening it. Could you share any thoughts about that one with us?

CM: It was a combination of things. I had a relative who was incarcerated at the time. That, and I saw a scene in a movie that really struck me. The scene was that the main character of the story was on a quest, out in the world as a young man, trying to find himself. And where he finds himself is in line at a homeless shelter, hoping to get a place to sleep.

The combination of those two thoughts created the story for that tune. I tried to record that a bunch of different ways. I was really excited to take a stab at it with a bunch of world-class Louisiana players. It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a song that I already felt really good about.

HMS: That’s amazing. This album has a wonderful, rich layering to it because of all these people taking part. It really is a very strong album.

CM: We’re very fortunate.

HMS: What about the song, “Valley of the Chiefs”? Was that tied to the geography we were talking about?

CM: No, that’s actually a true story, and the story takes place in Montana.

HMS: Ah okay, I thought it had a more Country Western feel.

CM: The musical inspirations for that song are Alvin Lee and maybe Mark Knopfler, a kind of Dire Straits approach. With still kind of a Blues element to it. My great-grandmother told the story, when I must have been three years old, about she and her friends getting kidnapped when she was a kid. When she told the story, she was about 106 years old, so this would’ve happened in 1860-ish or something like that, on the plains of Montana. Long story short, these girls ended up overcoming their kidnappers, and took their horses, and went home.

HMS: You’re blowing my mind here!

CM: The reason I was told the story was that it was part of a ceremony among Crow Indians. It’s called a Naming Ceremony. It’s something most children get, and an elder relates a story from their past. From that story, they try to inspire the children in some way in life. I think the idea behind that story is, “It could always be worse. There’s really no obstacle that life might toss at you that you can’t figure out a way to deal with.”

HMS: That is absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for telling me that story.

CM: Sure. I ask my mom about that story. It’s just something that’s been part of my life all my life. At one point, I told her that I was thinking of writing a song about that story, and she agreed that it was a good idea to do that. That’s where that one came from.

HMS: That’s so cool.

Tower’s original motto is “No Music, No Life” and “Know Music, Know Life”. What do you think either of those phrases means in your life?

CM: I’d have to go with knowledge. That’s really the one thing that saves us all, no matter what you’re talking about. In my particular world, to know music better is really my quest. It’s a lifelong quest.

I played the Tower Records in Paris one time! They used to have a café with a stage and a PA and everything.

HMS: WHAT?

CM: It was a huge, huge facility. It’s gone now. That’s my one and only connection to Tower Records.

HMS: Now that you mention it, I think I did go to Tower Records in Paris some years ago, but I don’t know if there was more than one location. A lot of Tower Records shops found ways to have performance space, whether using the parking lot or inside space. There have been so many cool performances over the years. We need to track down more videos of these performances!

1 comment

Thanks very much Hannah.

Cary Morin July 22, 2020

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